The Prime Minister as victim?

Posted in 1 by Editor on April 26, 2010

It has been suggested that we find ourselves in a political situation characterised, on the one hand, by the “dimming of (Lawrence Gonzi’s) charismatic image” and, on the other, by the Leader of the Opposition’s endeavour to mobilise a movement of all moderates and progressives. The same commentator also suggests that the “dimming” of the Nationalist Party’s leader is “a symptom” of his party’s failure to promote an inclusive movement that would have transcended traditional political polarities.

The dimming of an image ?

If I read this commentator correctly, he is suggesting that had the PN done in 21 years what Joseph Muscat is attempting to do today it would, presumably, have broadened and strengthened its support base sufficiently to enable it to make a real difference. Had it broken out of its mould and abandoned the rigidly exclusivist everyday practices of its leaders and henchmen, the PN would have been able to take this country much further forward the road of progress than it could possibly do with its stubbornly and narrowly partisan mindset.

The commentator, again if I do read him correctly, may therefore be understood to be suggesting that because of its “reluctance to re-grow things from fresh roots”, the PN has not really made a difference to this country. Nationalist governments have, inter alia, presided over controversial pharaonic projects, bought grand properties abroad (expensively) and sold precious national assets (cheaply), took the country into the European Union, adopted the euro and, under their watch, the number of students at the University expanded greatly.

And, yet, the country has not progressed from its state of provincial anything-goes mediocrity, of hypocritical whitewashed-grave bigotry. Indeed, our statesmen (yes, statesmen, because stateswomen are, in 2010, still more conspicuous by their absence than their presence) strut among the great of Europe but have yet to impress anyone with their ability to think as European statesmen. One dreads the very thought of our turn at the presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2017, unless, meanwhile, our whole political class goes through a veritable cultural revolution.

Bear in mind that the presidency is not an individual’s job but rather a multiplicity of very complex tasks undertaken by an entire national government. In Malta’s case, given our limitations, the government concerned will need to rely on the best resources the whole country can provide if it is to cut a good figure. The year 2017 will be the real test of our membership. Not only for whoever will be Maltese head of government in that year. Nor only for the government of the day. But for the whole country.

But let’s get back to what I think is the commentator’s central point and again I stand to be corrected by him if I have completely missed the said point.

Dr Gonzi’s weakness, we are told, lies in not having a political project that can compete with the Leader of the Opposition’s attempt to win “the hearts and minds of all moderates and progressives”. Clearly the “flimkien” (together) that makes “kollox possibbli” (everything possible) of 2008 may have contributed to rallying disappointed Nationalists to the PN flag, thus helping to win by a narrow margin, but it did nothing to win the hearts and minds of a much broader body of opinion that is beginning to despair that this country will ever go anywhere worthwhile. These are the moderates and progressives that together can indeed make everything possible.

Perhaps, however, Fr Peter Serracino Inglott – for, as I noted in this column on March 29, he is the commentator we are referring to – is being (unintentionally, perhaps) a bit too hard on the present Prime Minister. Fr Peter seems to argue that Dr Gonzi’s “reluctance to re-grow things from fresh roots” – a trait that is contributing to the “dimming of (his) charismatic image” – is an inherited trait whose roots may be traced back to an original sin, to something someone failed to do (also) in this country since1989!

The global cultural and political conditions that brought the Wall down, he argues, provided a “flash of hope” for inclusive political strategies bringing together “moderates and progressives” into a common front to face the burning issues facing humanity today. But should Dr Gonzi alone bear all the blame for what Fr Peter calls “the non-adoption of the 1989 flash of hope”? Was/is he the only one reluctant “to re-grow things from fresh roots”? Eddie Fenech Adami was Prime Minister from 1987 to 2004 with a brief interruption in 1996-1998. He was certainly in a better position to appreciate the “1989 flash of hope” than Dr Gonzi. He certainly basked in its powerful glow during the Bush-Gorbachev summit of 1989.

I think it would be more correct to attribute what Fr Peter calls the “dimming of (Lawrence Gonzi’s) charismatic image” to a widespread weariness with a political culture (understood as an ingrained way of doing things and justifying them) that increasingly fails to impress and inspire. Failure to observe how deep the roots of this political culture are suggests that merely replacing Dr Gonzi with someone with a brighter “charismatic image” will do the trick. The present Prime Minister is a product of this culture and, although he cannot be absolved from the responsibility of not having done anything to, at least, attempt “to re-grow things from fresh roots”, he is also therefore in a sense its victim.

This article appeared in Dr Vella column on The Times of Malta, April 26, 2010.  The original may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20100426/opinion/the-prime-minister-as-victim


It’s a long way to 1919

Posted in 1 by Editor on April 12, 2010

We’re in mid-April and it’s a long way to June 7. Yes, and it’s certainly a long way to go to 1919, nothing less than 91 years of Maltese history. And, yet, the spectre of that dramatic first Saturday of June 1919 often comes back to haunt us and – as befits a spectre that has hitherto irreverently defied all attempts to pacify it by canonising it as a stage in a bipartisan national development narrative – it does not always wait for its official anniversary to make its appearance.

As is to be expected of every political party that aspires to presents itself as the highest expression of national aspirations – I’m not always sure I know what that means – both major Maltese political parties have sought to insert the events of 1919 (because, quite correctly, one cannot uproot the Sette Giugno from other social and political developments in the course of that year) as defining moments in the narrative of their own histories.

These attempts are, to be fair, not unjustified. Take the Nationalist Party. I quote from its official website: “The first important achievement for the country of the Nationalist Party was the 1887 Representative Government Constitution. (…) The Nationalist Party continued to achieve convincing victories till the elections of 1903 when the English Government (sic) revoked the 1887 Constitution (…). In 1921, after incessant struggles and conflicts, which also led to bloodshed, namely the Sette Giugno incidents when four Maltese lost their lives, the English Government (sic) restored the Self-Government Constitution to Malta” (www.pn.org.mt/home.asp?module=content&id=159).

No serious student of Maltese history would disagree that the approval of the resolution tabled by the followers of Enrico Mizzi and Mgr I. Panzavecchia by the National Assembly on February 25, 1919, set the scene for a year of political turbulence that culminated with the events of June 7 of the same year, the day on which the National Assembly was to meet for the second time. Indeed, Giuseppe Mizzi, then editor of the newspaper Malta, remarked that the deliberations of the National Assembly were not confined to the premises put at its disposal by the Giovine Malta. The National Assembly, he wrote, was also taking place outside along Strada Rjali (King’s Street, today’s Republic Street).

And, as Herbert Ganado recalls in the first volume of his evergreen autobiography (p. 206), Dr Mizzi concluded his memorable piece with the ominous words: “Solo una scintilla manca perch√© scoppi l’incendio” (All that is needed is but a spark to start the fire).. Ganado also recalls that the motion jointly proposed by the Nationalist currents of Mizzi and Panzavecchia – more radically “anti-imperialist” than the much milder one put forward by Sir Filippo Sceberras and then abandoned by the same in the interests of unity – was approved almost unanimously by the Assembly.

“Almost” because Augustus Bartolo of the Daily Malta Chronicle voted against it (p.205). On June 7, the crowd attacked the offices and the presses of this newspaper. Although Ganado suggests that “some” dockyard workers had been planning to revenge themselves against the Chronicle because the latter had sided with the Admiralty and failed to stand up for their rights (p. 219), he also points out – with his customary candidness – that “the Nationalists, who were present in large numbers in that crowd, regarded the Chronicle as the imperialist paper that invariably served the English government” (p. 220).

Last year, during the annual solemn commemoration of the Sette Giugno (that we refer to this day in Italian rather than in English or Maltese is itself an indication of the ideological link between the pre-WWII history of the Nationalist Party, what happened on that occasion and what led to it), Louis Galea, as Speaker of the House of Representative said: “Ninety years ago four of our Maltese brothers (…) became the martyrs of the events of June 7, 1919, historically remembered as the Sette Giugno, a political story of the greatest importance tied with the development of the parliamentary democracy that the Maltese and Gozitan people enjoy today” (www.doi.gov.mt/en/press_releases/2009/06/Diskors%20sette%20giugno.pdf).

That there is a conscious effort to give a national and supra-partisan significance to the Sette Giugno, to present it as a step forward along the tortuous path to the present day, is an understandable and – in my view – positive phenomenon. Not that this interpretation should be simply taken for granted, of course. Like all political narratives, it too should be deconstructed and explained. The point is, however, that if it serves to decrease internal divisions at a time when we could do with a more pragmatic approach to the problems that confront us as a country, then we should not wantonly dismiss it.

And there is an attempt to dismiss it and to turn it into yet another element of divisiveness. A blogger recently referred to the Sette Giugno as “a day on which we now perversely celebrate the mob rather than the real victims”. Whereas the said blogger’s intention was to present today’s Labour Party supporters as “the direct spiritual and political descendants of the (Sette Giugno) mob”, these remarks will not please those Nationalists that regard the Sette Giugno as part of their party’s own history, as a tragic episode that ought to be understood rather than reviled.

Learning from history is a precondition for moving – as together as possible – towards a better future, for finding a middle ground on which we can build a future that is less bitter and acrimonious than the present.

This article appeared in Dr Vella’s column on The Times of Malta on April 12, 2010